Andrew Marsh is feeling positive about 2022. I talked to him in his beautifully bright shop at the start of the year. Christmas was ‘pretty good’ for custom; some days had been disappointingly quiet but others ‘brilliant’. Andrew explained that he had wanted to set up a bookshop for thirty years and that he decided to go ahead because he kept saying, ‘One day in the future’, then realised that the ‘future does run out’. He had planned to call his shop ‘Ampersand’ but he was sharply warned off that name by another trader. A huge lamp, shaped like an & on the central fireplace, welcomes readers to his colourful space. It’s one of dozens of pieces there created by local artists and makers. Each small front window panel, attractively decorated by a local graphic designer, frames a book by an East Anglian author. He has designated January ‘Local Author Month’. He is keen to support the community: giving generous help to businesses, charities, schools and regularly advertising regional talent through social media. Hundreds of bookmarks adorn the shop; some people go to extreme lengths to collect the 30+ Dial Lane-branded ones. He uses innovative ways of promoting sales: showcasing particular genres or topics; offering brown paper-wrapped ‘mystery’ books and flash discounts. Andrew is truly independent. He says he is ‘quirky, weird, peculiar—but in a nice way’. For him it is not just about ‘money in the till’. He thinks that people still buy in his shop, rather than online, because they can talk about potential choices, browse freely and enjoy touching the books. Customers often get into conversation with each other about their reading and swap recommendations.
Andrew previously lived in north London, working for eight years with a 24-hour security company; often his was a gruelling 80-hour week. He continues to be a workaholic, only sleeping for a few hours at night, waking up in the small hours to start again. He moved to Ipswich in 2017 to be with his partner. Tony works in East Anglia, is also a Northern Soul D. J. and Andrew’s accountant. Andrew admits this is not his area of expertise and that Tony (affectionately called ‘Mr Sensible’) gets a bit frustrated when, on a whim, Andrew gives away the odd book without making a note of the deficit. As he explained how the business has grown since he launched it in February 2020, his enthusiasm is genuine and infectious. The shop actually opened for trade as Covid restrictions came in. Such bad luck! This inauspicious start led him to deliver books to those who ordered through Bookshop.org . It gave him some time to work on the shop’s interior and he set up an upstairs office. Now, as his stock increases, he needs that space for shelving and he is refitting at the end of January. Andrew said he wouldn’t rule out expanding to selling second-hand books and talked nostalgically about Dylan Moran’s sitcom Black Books. Eventually though, he’d like new premises for a bookshop dedicated to children’s literature.
He spoke warmly about his early love of reading. Instead of playing outside at break time in his Junior school he would sit cross-legged on the floor, reading stories to the Infants. He treasured his library card and recalled discovering books in W. H. Smith’s in Wood Green. Writing poetry and short stories is something he has always enjoyed doing. He told me that, when he was younger, he had created a 50,000 word sequel for Beautiful Thing, a favourite film from 1996.
Andrew is excited to be nominated as one of 23 ‘Bookshop Heroes’, an initiative set up by the Booksellers Association in 2020. According to The Bookseller: ‘The list salutes the inspirational managers, superstar hand-sellers, innovative events gurus and canny buyers who are the heart and soul of British and Irish bookselling’. He says that an overall winner will be announced in spring 2022; he doesn’t know how the decision is made and isn’t doing anything particular to win but would be delighted if it were him.
Andrew is appreciative of his loyal customers and hugely supportive of high street resilience. He is, however, occasionally taken aback that, even after nearly two years, people ‘don’t know I’m here’; although Tony thinks it’s good that the shop is ‘still being discovered’. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of entering this very special establishment you have a real treat in store. Andrew is always happy to chat about his enduring passion and you can also meet him ‘hand-selling’ books at Suffolk Book league author events.